For some years now David Orr has been a frequent commentator on poets and poetry for the New York Times Book Review. He is himself a poet, and this short, lively guidebook proposes to conduct the “general reader” about the landscape of contemporary poetry—what he refers to more than once as Poetryland. Orr inquires into what can be deemed “worthwhile” about spending time reading poetry rather than doing any one of a number of other things. Since, in our young century, poetry as an art form “currently occupies a position in the popular consciousness somewhere between lute playing and crewel embroidery,” we could use some signposts and tips about what it really means to read the stuff. This task Orr carries out in six brief chapters, each of them self-described as “loose, anecdotal, occasionally inappropriate, and decidedly candid.” In that informal spirit, and with playful wit, he invites readers to disagree with him—“You might be wrong of course, but that isn’t the point”—an invitation for which this reader was grateful.
Individual chapters bear titles such as “The Personal,” “The Political,” “Form,” “Ambition,” but shouldn’t be regarded as clearly fenced-off subjects since all the chapters are held together by Orr’s strong, companionable voice. That voice is interested not in laying down the law, but rather in arguing (often with himself) a case for the life to be found in contemporary verse. In his opening chapter, “The Personal,” he finds such life in two poems by Frank O’Hara, famous for what Orr calls the “I do this, I do that” style of writing. At certain moments, O’Hara’s rapid piling up of random details suddenly shifts into another “register,” in what Orr aptly terms a “delicately nuanced understanding of embarrassment.” So, in “The Day Lady Died,” O’Hara moves from the Ziegfield Theater and Gauloises to the New York Post, on the front of which is the face of Billie Holiday:
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 spot
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped
Orr converts the lines to boldface type, bringing out the change of registers and the emergence of the “personal” out of an impersonal mélange of details. In a similarly focused way in chapter 2 (“The Political”), he quotes some lines from a poem by Robert Hass, “Bush’s War,” which seems as if it will engage real political issues but fails to. Instead of addressing “the practical reality of politics,” it turns into one more version of the contemporary meditative poem that can be glossed as “here I sit, having some poetic thoughts,” with “political words” taking the place of “references to waterfalls and foliage.”
In both these instances, typical of the book overall, Orr comes across as an engaged, discriminating reader-critic concerned with examining rather than selling us a product. On occasion he opens up the inquiry beyond remarks about individual poems to bring out, in a chapter titled “Ambition,” different ways of advertising, or not advertising, claims for “greatness.” The difference is felt in the styles of probably the two major American poets of the past fifty years: Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. In a telling juxtaposition, he puts Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” next to Bishop’s “Poem,” pointing out their differences in tone and diction (Lowell’s violent and confessional, Bishop’s muted and reticent) by way of establishing how “serious”—a word Bishop uses, then backs away from as pretentious—is the ambition of each poet.
Along the way Orr points to some interesting features of Poetryland I was insufficiently aware of—for example, the political fact that almost all poets “lean left,” and that there exists what he calls a “lionization” of poets from other countries, particularly ones, he says wryly, in which a poet has the opportunity to be shot. Like most phenomena treated in this book, such lionization has its merits and demerits; Orr’s level-headedness as a critic means that he distrusts his own assertions and often qualifies them immediately with further thought. I wish he had further qualified a couple of his thoughts about T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Of Eliot we are informed that his work “can seem almost sentimental,” while his manner earns the adjectives “ponderous” and “hoity-toity.” Pound is sort of “the Courtney Love of his day.” Here I judge Orr’s quick wit to have gotten out of hand.
As he nears the close of his book, Orr becomes, if anything, more skeptical about the moral value of reading poetry. He confesses that he believes poetry “hard to recommend,” and wonders whether it isn’t, after all, “beautifully pointless, or pointlessly beautiful.” Yet isn’t it the case that no one is tempted to use those words when considering, say, the poetry of John Milton or John Keats? Could it be that our current Poetryland is filled with poems and books of poems that not only seem on the pointless side but are not all that beautiful to boot? One could infer this from the evidence of many of Orr’s examples of current work; and here another opinionated book about poetry may be of use, Nicholson Baker’s novel The Anthologist. The hero of that novel is a poet named Paul Chowder who is compiling an anthology of rhymed verse for which he’s unable to write an introduction. Among Chowder’s many feistily delivered opinions is his declaration that poetry is “a controlled refinement of sobbing,” and that there’s a linkage between rhyming and weeping. By contrast he remembers a dire day in his childhood schooling when a teacher told the class that poetry “doesn’t have to rhyme.” For Paul the message was “Don’t rhyme,” a directive reinforced when the teacher wrote free verse on the blackboard.
Almost all the contemporary poems Orr quotes don’t rhyme, and if they use an iambic measure it’s a pretty loose one; in fact, rhyme is not even mentioned until a few pages from the book’s end, and then in connection with one of two personal anecdotes with which he concludes. The first of these describes his awakening to poetry when, during his sophomore year in college, he got hold of Philip Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings, then went on to read more Larkin, read more about Larkin, and read the poets who had been important to Larkin. What’s telling about this experience, and what Orr doesn’t seem to acknowledge, is that out of the thirty-two poems in The Whitsun Weddings, twenty-seven rhyme. And the modern poets whom Larkin at one time or another admired—Yeats, Hardy, Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas, Frost, Robert Graves, Auden, John Crowe Ransom (to go no further back)—all rhyme most of the time. They emphatically did not write poems that were pointless, although they did indeed write many beautiful ones.
The second, more painfully personal anecdote involves the death of Orr’s father a few years ago. Before he died, the father had a stroke paralyzing part of his left side and impeding his speech. The son, admirably, by way of helping him with his speech, decided to try out some poems on him: Hopkins’s “The Windhover” proved too difficult, but with Frost’s “The Silken Tent” things went more smoothly. Orr exclaims, “What better way to relearn intonation then to use an art form filled with conspicuous stress patterns. And rhyming! And emotion!” He doesn’t mention other poems or poets tried out on his father, but the most successful experiment was instigated by his mother when she brought home an illustrated edition of Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat:
The Owl and the Pussycat went to sea
In a beautiful pea green boat.
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five pound note.
Whether or not his father remembered the poem from long ago, “to say this delighted [him] would be putting it mildly.”
The scene of modern or contemporary poetry, post–Lowell and Bishop, is far from rhymeless. The finest of its practitioners, still going strong at age ninety, is Richard Wilbur. Today we see talents such as Mary Jo Salter, Glyn Maxwell, John Hollander, Brad Leithauser, R. S. Gwynn, and a few others carrying on the rhyming tradition. (None of them is mentioned in Orr’s illustrative examples of contemporary poetry.) Baker’s Paul Chowder refers to the products of unrhymed verse as “plums” rather than poems. Is it too absurd to hazard that if contemporaries tried for poems rather than plums, there would be a lot less poetry to contend with? That situation might not be an entirely bad thing.